Author: Richard Albeen
I was in New Beirut. Another planet. Another aftermath of another war.
I was walking down a bombed-out boulevard that had once been majestic. It would never be so again.
Craters half-filled with rancid water festered on each side of the street. Blasted buildings graced the avenues as far as the horizon, dimly obscured by lingering smokes of destruction. It would take a very long time to repair and rebuild the city. It wouldn’t be easy, either. Nor would it ever quite recapture its lost glory. At least not in the eyes of those who elected to remain there. Whatever was erected in the future, no matter how well-intentioned, it would only trigger memories. Memories that evoked destruction and death alongside those that faintly recalled a distant, antique beauty.
I stopped and leaned against the side of a building, lit a cigarette. I watched the darkness. It was peaceful, and quiet. A stark contrast to a few hours ago, when buildings erupted in devastation and people descended into despair.
I heard a sound not far away and put my hand on the flechette pistol in my pocket. Waited in the dimness.
A young boy of indeterminate age came into view. He had no legs, and was propelling himself along the ravaged street on a home-made cart with small wheels.
I briefly wondered how he had lost his legs. Then I stopped wondering because I knew how, all too well. I had lost count of all the dismemberments and disfigurements I had seen. I had almost lost count of all the wars I had been in. Mercenaries go where the wars are, and war never takes into consideration the ages or statures of its victims.
He stopped in front of me, there in those shadows of disaster, regarded me calmly in his rags of clothing.
“What do you think?” he finally asked.
I looked at him and considered. “About what?” I answered.
He made a gesture. “About all of this.”
“I try not to think,” I said. “It hurts.”
The boy nodded. “I used to try not to think. But it’s hard, living … here.” Again he gestured at
He said, “You can go, you know. Your job here is done. You don’t have to live here.”
I nodded again, and said, “You’re right. I can. And I’ll probably end up somewhere else light-years away, someplace just like this, in time.”
He smiled, soft and sad, and looked at me with eyes of tired truth.
“You may,” he agreed. “And I’ll always be in this place. Always.”
“I’m sorry for that,” I said. “I wish it were otherwise.”
“We all do,” he answered. “We always will.”
He turned away and hand-pedaled himself into the night.
I walked back to the barracks under stinking skies.
He was right, that kid, all those years ago. I still wonder whatever became of him. Part of me thinks that I shouldn’t, as it happened so long ago.
Another part of me can’t stop.